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Amping Up the Stakes on a Subculture

Authors: Novelist Robert Ferrigno mines the Southern California landscape, culling quirky and sometimes seedy lifestyles and taking them to new levels.

August 15, 1996|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is the quirky subcultures and out-there personalities of Southern California that have long ignited Robert Ferrigno's writing. Steroid-pumped bodybuilders. Ferrari owners. Auto repo men. Surf bums. Women who compete in bar bikini contests.

"I was always interested in subcultures--high or low, it didn't matter," says Ferrigno, 49, who in the 1980s was an Orange County newspaper features writer.

As a novelist in the 1990s, Ferrigno continues to mine the denizens of the Southern California landscape, taking reality and, as he says, "amping" it up. Think of Boyd and Lloyd, the twin air-brained bodybuilders who work out to the strains of Wagner in "The Horse Latitudes," his 1990 debut novel. Or the hit man in "Dead Man's Dance" who hopes to earn enough money to open a beauty salon.

In "Dead Silent" (Putnam, 1996), Ferrigno's fourth noir crime thriller set primarily in the deceptively sunny environs of Orange County, he taps into the little-known world of people who make and circulate audiotapes of crank phone calls, off-camera remarks from talk shows picked up off satellite feeds and candid Hollywood outtakes.

For them, it's all for laughs.

But in "Dead Silent" a taped phone call has tragic consequences.

The novel opens with record producer Nick Carbonne and his entertainment attorney wife, Sharon, lying in bed in their south Orange County home listening to the rhythmic rocking of the bed in the guest bedroom below. That would be their house guests, Nick's former rock bandmate Perry and Perry's sexy girlfriend, Alison, an aspiring actress.

Nick and Sharon can't help listening to the seductive activity on the floor below, two unseeing voyeurs in the night.

But then they hear what sounds like Alison talking on the telephone. She's speaking in a high-pitched, girlish voice. Curious, Sharon carefully picks up their bedside phone, laying it on the pillow between her and Nick. On the downstairs phone, Alison is talking to a man--a stranger--about her being a high school cheerleader, about her boyfriend on the football team, about sex.

By the end of the next day, the chemistry between Nick and the seductive Alison has begun to ignite--and they have survived an accident on a flooded road as they drive home from a record-release party in Los Angeles. Returning to the house, Nick and Alison encounter a shocking scene: Perry has been shot to death, his naked body floating in the backyard hot tub; the nude body of Nick's wife, who was apparently mistaken for Alison, is nearby.

Perry and Alison, it turns out, had been making and selling dirty phone calls that Alison placed to strangers. The night before, they had inadvertently taped the murder of one of their regular clients.

It's easy to see why the novel's opening three chapters--only 40 manuscript pages--were enough to pique the interest of Hollywood long before Ferrigno finished writing the book. Last summer, Fox 2000, a division of 20th Century Fox, paid Ferrigno a high six-figure advance for an option on the movie rights to "Dead Silent."

"Dead Silent" the novel is now in bookstores.

In a review in the September issue of Playboy, critic Digby Diehl says Ferrigno's fourth outing demonstrates "that he is still a fine stylist who writes about sex and violence as well as anybody." Reviewers of his previous novels have noted that particular flair, but don't get the wrong idea.

"I read other thrillers where the violence seems to me infinitely more explicit," Ferrigno says. As for the sex in his novels: "I always think that I write romantic thrillers because there is a love story at the center of the book."

And, always, there's Ferrigno's take on different segments of Southern California's subcultures.

This time out, he not only serves up what he calls the "postmodern phone prank society," but a drug-dealing motorcycle gang and "the Hollywood hustle, which is what Alison is involved in; and Nick, who is basically a washed-up rock star doing the best he can."

Ferrigno, who moved in 1991 from Long Beach to Kirkland, Wash., with his wife, Jody, and their three children, returns to Southern California several times a year to visit--and for inspiration.

The idea for writing a novel dealing with the underground audiotape circuit came to Ferrigno after he attended a Hollywood party at the home of a friend. The friend, a television comedy writer, put on a tape he had received of a phone prank, saying, "I've got something you'll get a kick out of."

The tape is called "New Saigon."

On the tape, a pleasant, soft-spoken man with a Vietnamese accent calls up Garden Grove residents to say he would like them to sign a petition to change the name of Garden Grove to New Saigon.

Predictably, the request touches a raw nerve.

"Bull----!" one older-sounding man lashes out. "You people come here to our country and right away you want to change things?"

"Well," explains the Vietnamese caller, "it's tradition."

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